Wind power developers want Nebraska senators to cut red tape

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Renewable energy advocates say Nebraska is squandering its potential as the state with the nation's third-highest wind energy capacity by holding onto strict requirements that hinder private developers' projects.

Lawmakers on the Natural Resources Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill by Sen. John McCollister of Omaha that would speed up the approval process for installing wind turbines.

The bill would eliminate a requirement that the developer have a purchasing power agreement in place before a project could be approved by the Nebraska Power Review Board. Private developers say Nebraska is the only state with such a rule and the delay in the approval process puts them at a disadvantage with outside investors.

Frank Costanza of TradeWind Energy said his company is developing thousands of MW of wind energy for export in Oklahoma and Kansas, but avoids Nebraska's attractive wind resources because of "onerous" regulations.

"We can go to other places and do it cheaper, faster and with less risk," Costanza said.

Thomas Budler, president of BHE Wind, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Energy's BHE Renewables, said out of more than 150 projects he has reviewed in the past five years, the company has only chosen to invest in one Nebraska project.

A 400 MW wind farm currently being built in Holt County would create 350 temporary construction jobs, at least 12 full-time operation jobs, and bring in $2.6 million in property tax revenue the county. But Budler said BHE Wind is hesitant to pursue other development in the state because of the red-tape surrounding the process.

The bill would also protect private developers from Nebraska Public Power District's power of eminent domain.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcom said if Nebraska does not act now, developers will be less likely to invest because a federal production tax credit will decrease next year.

"It is time to let go of our fear of change, because change is necessary," Haar said. "And, frankly, I believe change must occur for public power to survive."

But opponents say a faster approval process could create an influx of power that would oversaturate the grid, cause massive congestion and increase prices for rate-payers.

A 2014 report by private consultants The Brattle Group to the Nebraska Power Review Board found Nebraska has transmission capacity to generate about 2,000 more MW of energy. If the bill passes, more than double that would enter the system, said Jan Bostelman, a Nebraska engineer from Brainard. That would require millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and increases in power rates, she said.

Sara Macklin, who lives near the proposed Cottonwood Wind Project in Webster County, said the site would interfere with weather radars, crane migration and would subject her and her family to noise pollution.

Macklin said zoning officials in many smaller counties are ill-equipped to deal with wind development and the state's "burdensome regulations" exist to protect regular Nebraskans.

Nebraska Public Power District, the Power Electric Board, Lincoln Electric Systems and others were neutral on the measure, saying they continue to have technical concerns but were able to compromise with McCollister as he crafted the bill.

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